By REBECCA SLOAN
If how to best landscape your back yard has got you stumped, consider planting a few shrubs. Whether you need to fill in some gaps, create some dimension, cover some bare ground or build a wall to block bitter winter winds, there's a shrub that will fit the bill.
Better yet, since the approach of fall means falling prices on plants at local garden centers, now is the perfect time of year to purchase and plant shrubs.
Philip Steiner, president of Mellinger's Nursery in North Lima, said there are thousands of shrubs to choose from, but to make selection simpler, he divided shrubs into three categories: Evergreens, or shrubs that don't lose their leaves in winter; deciduous, or shrubs that do lose their leaves in winter; and coniferous, or shrubs that bear cones.
With their hardy, everlasting foliage, evergreen shrubs bring color and depth to gardens even during the bleak winter months.
Steiner said rhododendrons, which are native to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, are by far the most popular evergreen shrub. What is also popular, however, are the mistakes people make in caring for them.
"Rhododendrons are by far one of the most popular type of evergreen shrubs because they produce gorgeous flowers and grow to a large size, but although they are very hardy, people often don't plant them in the right place. They prefer some shade, and they need a well-drained, acidic soil," Steiner said.
Steiner said boxwood is a type of evergreen shrub that has also become very popular.
"Boxwood is traditionally grown in the south, but in recent years, hardier varieties have been developed for northern climates," Steiner said.
"Our area is classified as Zone Five for plant hardiness, so you should choose a boxwood made for that zone. Anything less won't survive a really severe winter."
Blue holly is also an increasingly popular evergreen shrub, Steiner said.
"What some people don't know, though, is that in order to get the red berries, you have to have both a male and female plant," he said. "For every dozen or so female plants you have, you'll need one male plant."
Although many types of azalea lose their leaves for winter, Judy Bott, office manager at Elliott's Western Reserve Nursery in Boardman, said there are also many some types of azalea that remain green all year long.
"When you are purchasing an azalea, ask for a type that won't lose its leaves if it's an evergreen shrub that you're after," she said.
Steiner said azaleas don't like to be planted in open areas.
"Put them somewhere they will get protection from the elements or they won't do well," he said.
If it's color you're after, deciduous shrubs are your best bet.
For high-volume color, Steiner recommended shrubs such as spirea and potentilla.
"The foliage of the spirea is gold, yellow or red, and there are even some flowering varieties," he said. "The trick to getting the brilliant color is to make sure you plant them where they get plenty of sun."
Potentilla produces flowers all summer long, unless it is subject to extreme heat.
"Potentilla is ideal for people who want colorful flowers all season and not just in the spring or for a few weeks in summer," Steiner said.
The hydrangea is another popular deciduous choice that produces colorful blooms.
It's large, fluffy, snowball-like flowers come in white, blue or pink, and it will do well in sun or shade.
"The older varieties of hydrangea produced white blossoms and the only way to get colored blossoms was to add iron to the soil or to make the soil more acidic," Steiner said. "You don't need to do this with the newer varieties."
Bott said forsythia is one of the hardiest deciduous shrubs, and in the spring, also one of the most colorful.
"It's branches are bright yellow during spring before the foliage turns green," she said.
Red-twigged dogwood is a deciduous shrub that will give gardens a boost of color during winter.
"It loses its leaves in the fall, but the stems turn bright red during the winter, so it supplies some color during the dreary, gray weather," Bott said.
And unlike dogwood trees, the red-twigged dogwood shrub is quite hardy.
"Plant it where it will get some sun and it should do just fine. It will grow to a height of about four feet," she said.
Versatility of conifers
Perhaps the most versatile of all shrubs are those in the coniferous category. Most do well in sun or shade, and if you want to create a buffer against cold winter winds or find something to cover some bare ground, coniferous shrubs deliver.
Juniper, for example, can be planted not only to help protect other plants from the elements, but also as a ground cover.
"There are types of junipers that grow to be 10 feet tall that can be planted close together to protect from the elements, and there are types that can be planted as ground covers," Steiner said.
Just make sure to wear your gloves when you handle a juniper.
They are a little bit prickly," Steiner said.
And contrary to what you might think, not all coniferous shrubs are pine-needle green.
Gold thread cypris, for example, will develop a yellow cast if it gets enough sun.
"Just remember that any plant that has colorful foliage will need about six hours of intense sunlight per day for the foliage to retain its bright, colorful look," Bott said.
Philip Steiner is the president of Mellinger's Nursery in North Lima.